POLICY/QUALITY: Antibiotics overuse as an emerging public health threat

THCB is now so influential that people are seeking to advertise on it. Really! (Stop that sniggering). I did get a message from John Riley at Keep Antibiotics Working to ask if he could advertise to my readers. As this site is designed to produce neutral but opinionated reporting (that advertises only me and my services as a by-product) and also I’m not set up to take advertising, I declined. But after I saw what the site was about and read this post from Family Medicine Notes about the dangers of antibiotic overuse in humans, I thought that it would be worth giving John some space to explain why antibiotic overuse in animals is such a health and policy problem. So here’s his argument:

    Over the last 60 years, effective antibiotics have turned bacterial infections into treatable conditions, rather than the life-threatening scourges they once were. The effectiveness of many life-saving antibiotics is, however, waning. Health experts have deemed the rise in antibiotic resistance a public health crisis. Everyone is at risk from antibiotic-resistant infections, but children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable.

    The overuse of antibiotics is to blame. A major source of this overuse is routine use of antibiotics as feed additives for livestock and poultry–not to treat disease, but instead to promote growth and compensate for crowded, stressful, unsanitary conditions. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70% of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used as feed additives for pigs, poultry and cattle. In June 2001, the American Medical Association went on record opposing the routine feeding of medically important antibiotics to livestock and poultry (i.e., “nontherapeutic” use).

    Antibiotic use in animal agriculture has been linked definitively to human bacterial infections resistant to antibiotics. Mounting evidence suggests that widespread overuse of agricultural antibiotics also may be contaminating surface waters and groundwater, including drinking water sources in many rural areas. Nonetheless, agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry are fighting hard to thwart restrictions on the use of antibiotics in agriculture.
    While medical use of antibiotics is a major contributor to the emergence of antibiotic resistance, agricultural uses also pose a significant problem since they promote the development of resistant bacteria that can reach humans through several different pathways – directly via contaminated food or indirectly via environmental contamination.

    In an effort to curb the spread of resistant bacteria and protect the efficacy of antibiotic drugs, the “Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act” (S. 1460/H.R. 2932) is bipartisan legislation pending in both houses of Congress that would phase out the routine use of eight classes of medically important antibiotics in animal agriculture, unless their use can be shown not to pose a threat to human health. The legislation would continue to allow antibiotic use for treating sick animals and preventing the spread of documented illnesses in a flock or herd. Over 325 organizations around the country have endorsed this legislation, including 83 professional health groups, such as the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association.

    Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of health, consumer, agricultural, environmental and other advocacy groups with over 9 million members, is seeking individuals who have experienced an antibiotic-resistant illness to share their stories and help protect the effectiveness of antibiotics. For more information, please visit www.KeepAntibioticsWorking.com.

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